The Top 10 Films of 2012

More than ever, boiling this concluding year down to the 10 “best” movies feels both arbitrary and reductive. Ideally, I’d have 25 unnumbered slots. I’d cite another five, formally varied nonfiction films: Tchoupitoulas, Detropia, The Ambassador, Only the Young, and How to Survive a Plague. And were I crafting this list on another day or in another mood, any of the following indies—all of which deserved larger audiences than they got—could have made the cut for a top 10: Bernie, Dark Horse, Keep the Lights On, Damsels in Distress, The Color Wheel, Compliance, Middle of Nowhere, Bonsái, Goodbye First Love, The Day He Arrives.

The upshot being, essentially, that even as studio releases are becoming more generic and/or more obsessed with awards-baiting formulas and/or franchise longevity, the other side of the spectrum is looking pretty good. Great, even: It seems as though more worthy films than ever before are making the leap from the festival circuit to some form of theatrical distribution, while nontraditional distribution options (from streaming to one-night-only pop-ups) are increasingly acquiring happening-like cachet.

And so I chose to abstain from voting in the Best Undistributed Film category in the Voice poll. The distinction between “distributed” and “undistributed” seems more artificially binary than ever. Honestly, I’m far more passionate about films that were barely distributed in 2011 (like Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country and The Day He Arrives, two features that got a New York release but have thus far not made it to Los Angeles) than I am about anything that seems in danger of falling through the theatrical cracks. A dose of perspective: In 2010, at the end of my first year on this job, the overwhelming winner of the Best Undistributed honor in our poll was Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, which I described as “the only film . . . whose lack of distribution seems like a scandal.” With all of the newish, increasingly viable options for filmmakers to distribute their work, it’s hard to imagine feeling so scandalized today.

Another category in which I went with the “no vote” as protest: animation. On the one hand, this is an admission of personal failure: I didn’t review a single purely animated film this year, and I didn’t see enough of them to feel fully qualified to evaluate the field. Also, like the distinction between distributed/undistributed, I wonder if the notion of animated versus non-animated shouldn’t be up for redefinition. Where would The Avengers be without computer-animated enhancement? What are films like Life of Pi or The Hobbit if not live-action-animation hybrids, 21st-century versions of Mary Poppins? (That said, I’ll take Mary Poppins over any of them.)

One final note: I love Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson so much that I contemplated finding a place here for that soggy, but not totally unsatisfying, presidential farce. In the end, I went with a top 10 that I can fully defend.

10. Django Unchained

The power of Quentin Tarantino’s Siegel-eats-spaghetti slavesploitation western lies in the contrast between the banality of its depiction of the grotesquerie of the pre–Civil War American South and its riotously black comedy. Django is too structurally and spiritually similar to Tarantino’s masterful last film—the equally surreal revisionist history Inglourious Basterds—not to invite comparisons between the two, and on that playing field, Django looks a bit wan stylistically. But what the new film lacks in pure filmmaking panache (to borrow a word Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz), it almost makes up for with its script, Tarantino’s funniest and most linear—which, for him, means it’s his most experimental.

9. Chronicle

In a year in which even James Bond got a superhero origin story, Josh Trank’s legitimately dark teen super-villain making-of saga did a better job at basic character development than any of its big-budget, brand-name competitors. It’s also, simply, the most convincing faux-found-footage/POV action movie I’ve ever seen.

8. Anna Karenina

No film has been more unfairly written off as a dumb blonde since Marie Antoinette. Similar to Sofia Coppola’s misunderstood marvel, Joe Wright’s take on Tolstoy is a layer cake, its frosting-thick artifice not antithetical to substance but integral to it.

7. This Is Not a Film

A new benchmark in constructed “reality.” A genuinely risky political provocation. A dispatch from inside a closed state. An artist’s personal statement and illuminating lecture on his work. A domestic comedy. The best not-a-film of 2012.

6. Rust and Bone

Jacques Audiard’s would-be romantic melodrama demands more alert viewing than perhaps any other more-or-less traditional narrative film this year. Yes, this is a movie featuring multiple artfully lit amputee sex scenes and which uses a Katy Perry song—twice—for not-quite-ironic effect. It’s also incredibly complex in the way it sketches its characters, their relationship to one another, and their constantly shifting points on the hero/villain/victim continuum.

5. The Loneliest Planet

Julia Loktev’s devastating journey into the darkness of the heart requires more alert viewing than any not-quite-traditional narrative film of the year. In a cultural moment in which American indie film has become over-reliant on muddying the notion of “real,” Loktev’s minimalistic impressionism is more vital than ever.

4. Attenberg

When I try to imagine which 2012 release I’d show the 16-year-old version of me, it would be Athina Rachel Tsangari’s spunkily touching tale of a young woman coming of age in a Greece that’s falling apart.

3. Moonrise Kingdom

The most beautiful film of the year.

2. Holy Motors

The most film of the year.

1. The Master

In a year teeming with auteurist takes on historical moments, it was Paul Thomas Anderson who created the most convincing, compelling, and piercingly cinematic map of what it felt like to be alive at an incredibly specific point in time. An unshakable nightmare counterpoint to the postwar American Dream.


The Loneliest Planet Sets a Course for Who Couples Truly Are

The Loneliest Planet begins with close-up trained on the body of a beautiful woman, naked and trembling. It’s not what it sounds like. Nica (Hani Furstenberg), on a pre-marriage honeymoon with fiancé Alex (Gael García Bernal) in rural Georgia, is in the midst of a makeshift shower. As Nica pogoes up and down on an unseen platform in an attempt to keep warm, her slim, androgynous body, doused in milky-white soap suds, becomes a blur of motion set to the violent beat of her feet. It takes a moment for the eyes to adjust, to register what we’re seeing: Is this body male or female? Is this a mundane act or some strange, exotic ritual?

With this opening image, writer-director Julia Loktev sets up her extraordinary second fiction feature in two ways: She announces an intention to explore sex and gender murkiness and warns that this is a film to watch carefully, one that demands distraction-free contemplation. Loktev takes a painterly approach, crafting a study in colors—the vibrant green landscape, entire campfire-lit scenes registering as dances of shadow and warm flashes of skin, Furstenberg’s wild red hair filling the frame—as she also charts the variable shades and tones of a single relationship. Within a scantily plotted, novella-style narrative (the movie is an adaptation of a short story by Tom Bissell), single shots become story events that mere mention would spoil.

By the time Alex and Nica hire a guide, Dato (played by real-life guide Bidzina Gujabidze), to lead them on a backpacking trip through a desolate Eastern European mountain range, the couple has already been on the road for three weeks, and they show little sign of wearing down each other’s nerves. They’re so comfortable together that they discuss bowel regularity, and yet they’re still hot enough for each other that a modicum of privacy leads to desperate groping. It’s an ideal relationship—or maybe just idealized. Out in the wild, they’ve sunk deep into each other, apparently having put aside their real world completely: There’s no mention of what they do for a living or where they live (other than “America”). They don’t use cell phones or even read books. It’s just them.

As Loktev documents their travels, she’s also showing us how this man and soon-to-be wife see each other. Nica prides herself on her toughness, in defiance of presumed feminine weakness. She shows off chin-ups while slightly pudgy Alex watches; she responds to every male show of concern for her physical capability with “I’m fine” or “Don’t worry. I’m strong.”

In one scene, a beautifully calibrated harbinger of doom, she gleefully schools the guide on the proper English pronunciation of the word “bitch” through raucous repetition.

And then something happens: In a moment of fear, Alex’s knee-jerk reaction reveals his own cowardice and puts Nica’s life at risk. The incident is never addressed after the fact, and yet its dark shadow hangs over and informs the film’s entire second half. The moment itself is jaw-dropping, and it casts an incredible tension over everything that follows. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, and Loktev has established a space in which it feels as though absolutely anything could.

The title, an apparent play on the Lonely Planet travel guides designed for boho tourists like Loktev’s couple, takes on more complicated connotations as the trio delve into rugged, desolate terrain. Those books are intended as salves for the worries of tourists heading into unknown territory, but their expertise is limited to experiences and conveniences that can be bought; any kind of mortal or existential quandary sparked by/on foreign soil is beyond their purview. In a good relationship, you feel like you can survive anything the world throws at you. Loktev expertly trains her camera through a fissure in such a bond and reveals an unshakable vision of the terror of facing the unknown without a guide.


Day Night Day Night

Dir. Julia Loktev (2007).
A frail-looking young woman, outfitted with a bomb, wanders through Times Square, searching for the moment to blow up. Free-floating anxiety gives way to fear and trembling, being and nothingness, curiosity and impatience. Day Night Day Night isn’t just a movie that explores the nightmare of a potential terrorist attack in the most public of public spaces; it’s a movie about the inherent terror in those spaces.

Mon., July 5, 4 p.m., 2010


5 Questions. . .

A 19-year-old girl, identified only as She, arrives in New York; a day later she’s wandering around Times Square with a bomb in her backpack. The long intervening hours are the subject of Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night. I sat down with Loktev over tea to discuss the film.

What prompted your fascination with suicide bombers? I didn’t have a fascination with suicide bombers. At least I didn’t think I did. And then I read this article in a Russian newspaper about a girl who was walking through Moscow with a bomb in her bag, [and] I got caught up in that story. When you see characters like these in movies, they fall into cliché. They have some horror in their family that they need to avenge. But when you read it in newspapers, it’ll say, “Dad ran a successful fish-and-chips shop. And all his friends say he likes soccer and he likes girls.” So those are the things I’m always struck by. I’ve been accused of taking this story out of context, but that’s impossible. The context isn’t stated in the film, but it engulfs every frame.

So why does it seem like She never stops eating? There’s this culture of the last meal—it happens with suicide bombers, prisoners, even Jesus. And I wondered what that would mean to a 19-year-old girl. She has consciously chosen to leave the material world, go to a higher plane of some sort, and at the same time the world keeps yanking at her, saying, “Have a candy apple!”

Is it New York that’s yanking? Does the city change her? The city is another character in the film. Once you take a plan out into the streets, the real world starts to batter away at it from all sides. And I wanted this to be—I don’t know how to say this without sounding cheesy—a valentine to New York, to things that I love about being on the street, to the way that people just start talking to you.

The figure of the suicide bomber is unique to the contemporary world, but were you interested in the cultural history of the female martyr? I was interested in the parallel of faith—my character believes in a higher cause even though it’s never named—but also specifically in the way Joan of Arc has been shown in films. She’s somebody who is always tortured by the camera, [and] my film is very much about a girl’s face and a camera. And Luisa [Williams] is a big Jean Seberg fan, and she got me thinking about Seberg’s interpretation of Joan as a pesky teenager. I wanted these to inform the film, because Joan of Arc was leading her people on a crusade, but she was also perceived as a crackpot.

And maybe she was? And maybe she was.


Mission: Midtown

A frail-looking young woman, outfitted with a bomb, wanders through Times Square—finger on the switch, searching for the moment to blow up. That, in a sentence, is the premise of Julia Loktev’s outrageously abstract Day Night Day Night.

Terror is existential in this highly intelligent, somewhat sadistic, totally fascinating movie. Identified in the manner of a French “new novel” only as She, the teenaged suicidiste (Luisa Williams) is introduced on a cross-country bus en route to her fatal rendezvous. “Everybody dies,” she chants in an accent-free whisper. “My death will be for you.” It’s the nature of the You that Loktev leaves the viewer to ponder for the duration of this structural thriller.

As its title suggests, Day Night Day Night has two halves. The first is devoted to the preparation. She gets off the bus and contacts her handlers, is taken for a quick ramen dinner, and dropped at a nondescript New Jersey motel. Awaiting further instructions, She bathes, shaves her armpits, clips her toenails, and washes her clothes—anxiety mounting despite, or perhaps because of, these banal, yet final, activities. Before her hooded handlers arrive, She blindfolds and handcuffs herself. They give her instructions and invite her to ask questions (which they ignore). Barely treated as human, She touchingly invites her masked comrades to share the pizza that’s been ordered. She doesn’t want to eat alone.

The Russian-born, 30-something Loktev has an extremely dry sense of humor. The three ski-masked palookas suggest that She might want to record a video for her parents. “My parents are dead,” the girl timidly offers. No matter, She’s dressed up in vaguely military garb and posed, holding a carbine, before a generic militant backdrop. As a costume for the mission, She models a bunch of Kmart outfits. (Finally, the handlers nix the pink Baby Girl zippered sweatshirt in favor of a striped sweater.) She’s given an identity to memorize and interminably drilled. Process is all: This cell has no obvious politics, no apparent religion, no overt nationality.

The mission is all about directing a performance—as is the movie. Williams, a neophyte actress who Loktev says she chose from 650 candidates (perhaps, because as the press notes maintain, the actress developed a tween crush on Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates), has Mediterranean coloring, a tentative little voice, and a not-quite crucifix around her neck. Her character is obedient, fastidious, and dutiful; her sharp features are squeezed together, large eyes sunk deep within the heart-shaped, bony face that frequently fills the screen. It’s a great turn—a virtual solo. (Not since Bresson’s Trial of Joan of Arc or the Dardennes’ Rosetta has an actor been so closely and continuously observed.) Williams’s intense focus may mirror that of her director; Loktev’s first feature Moment of Impact was a disturbingly intrusive documentary on the daily life of her severely disabled father.

Day Night Day Night‘s second half begins with She’s emergence from the Port Authority outfitted with a lethal backpack (“It’s about 50 pounds, but most of the weight is in the nails,” She’s been told) into the sensory bombardment of midday Eighth Avenue. Walking through the crowd, She resembles the Professor in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, although Loktev’s model is more likely Hitchcock’s Sabotage—the grandfather of all suicide-bomber flicks, including Hany Abu-Assad’s more politically “responsible” Paradise Now.

The camera runs free, and over-stimulation reigns: She seems dazed, asking the way to Times Square and proceeding down the Deuce with a big mustard-slathered pretzel in each hand. Someone slams into her, tourists ask her to take their pictures, police sirens blare, unwelcome suitors appear. She ducks into in a huge candy emporium for a jelly apple. (Food is an issue throughout.) Free-floating anxiety gives way to fear and trembling, being and nothingness, curiosity and impatience. A public toilet must be negotiated—as well as a pay phone.

So what’s the game plan? Where’s the moment of impact? At key moments, the crowd is reduced to extreme close-ups of individual gestures, the sound cutting in and out like waves pounding the beach. Time stands still; the wait is interminable. However low-budget and minimalist, this digitally shot, quasi-guerrilla production is a new-style disaster flick—as experiential in its way as the ritual ordeal provided by United 93.

Were it not for it’s durational aspect, Loktev’s concept might also have been realized as a performance piece or a gallery installation. Unlike Paradise Now, Day Night Day Night has no interest in mapping the prime mental terra incognita of contemporary politics: The movie has nothing to do with the psychology of the suicide bomber and everything to do with the psychology of the spectator.